AFC Wildcard game 2 San Diego Chargers @ Cincinnati Bengals

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The Chargers only made the playoffs after a blown call by the officials in their final regular season game against a Kansas City team who rested most of their starters safe in the knowledge they had already secured a Wildcard spot.  The Chargers do however have the longest winning streak of any AFC team but they have played 3 of the 4 games of that streak at home and this week they travel to Ohio to face a Bengals team who were the last team to beat them and who haven’t lost a game at Paul Brown Stadium all season.  Despite their recent run of successful results the Chargers haven’t really dominated an opponent since beat the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars by 18 points way back in week 7, their average winning margin in their 9 victories this season has been 9 points and overall they have scored on average 24.8 points per game.  The Bengals on the other hand have scored an impressive 430 points this season at an average of 26.9 points per game whilst their defence has conceded on average just 19.1 points per game, the fewest in the AFC.

There’s really not much to say about this game, other than it seems to be one of the most straightforward Wildcard games in recent history, San Diego’s place in the playoffs should have been taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers and an officiating mistake which should have seen Ryan Succop have a field goal attempt from 36 yards to win the game for the Chiefs now results in a team from California going to play in temperatures that aren’t forecast to rise above 1 degree Celsius all day.  Of course it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the Bengals could suffer from the same playoff anxiety that saw them lose their first post season game last year in Reliant Stadium when they totally clammed up in Houston and only managed to score 13 points but with this being the Chargers first playoff game since 2009 (it’s 2008 since they won a playoff game & 2007 since they won 1 outside San Diego) and the first playoff experience of a post season as a Head Coach for Mike McCoy it would need some sort of major meltdown for the Chargers to progress. It will be difficult for a team who rely on their Quarterback to get the ball into the end zone as much the Chargers rely on Rivers to generate any sort of momentum on a day when the ball will most likely be frozen and the fingers will be numb, that said the Bengals will face their own challenges at the weekend with injury worries over 2 Tight Ends in Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham and their stud Wide Receiver A.J Green Andy Dalton could be without 3 players who are responsible for 51% of the Bengals touchdown receptions and 54% of their receiving yards this season but with the Chargers leaky red zone defence, they concede a touchdown on 62% of opponents visits to their red zone the Bengals should overcome any possible omissions.

The Bengals are favourites to win by between 7 and 12 points, although you can get shorter odds on the Bengals winning by 18 points than on the Chargers winning and I think that demonstrates how much of an uphill battle Phillip Rivers faces as the Chargers head for the north bank of the Ohio river.  The Bengals home advantage should be key to the result, but points could be hard come by with such harsh temperatures to do battle with, so the Bengals by less than 6 would seem a wise selection.

NFC Wildcard game 1 New Orleans Saints @ Philadelphia Eagles

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There aren’t many similarities between these two teams, one, the Saints, have an experienced and probably the NFL’s most creative Head Coach in Sean Payton and a veteran Quarterback, Drew Brees, who between them run an offence which relies on passing to move the ball, 75% of their total first downs this season have been achieved by passing.  The home team, the Eagles have one of the most innovative coaches in football in Chip Kelly, a Head Coach in his first year in the NFL after 22 years as a college coach, they also have an inexperienced Quarterback in Nick Foles who was a 3rd round draft pick in 2012 and has completed fewer passes in his career than his opposite number has this season alone.  Brees will be playing in his 10th playoff game whereas Foles will be playing his first playoff game and the Eagles first since 2010.  Another of the major differences between the two teams is that the Eagles, who host the game play outside at Lincoln Financial Field but the Saints home games are played on synthetic turf in the Superdome.  This means that running the ball is a key facet of the Eagles offence and the sheltered conditions assist he Saints throw based offence.  The Eagles lead the NFL in rushing yards per game this season, averaging over 160 yards on the ground each week, with running back LeSean McCoy leading the NFL this season with 1,607 rushing yards, almost 300 yards more than the second place player.  He average 100.4 yards on the ground, combined with his average of 34 receiving yards per game means he’s virtually guaranteed to have a big game this week, he rushed for 79 first downs this season, the Saints only managed 87 rushing first downs as a team.  The Saints conversely ranked as the 25th best team in the league when it came to running the ball averaging a mediocre 92.1 yards per game.

Defensively both teams are almost diametric too, the Eagles have been very difficult for teams to run against and they have allowed on average just 104.4 yards rushing per game, which ranks them as the 10th best defence in the NFL.  The Saints have the 19th ranked rushing defence which has, on average given up 111.6 yards each game.  The Saints defence has excelled at stopping opposition teams from passing and with an average of just 194.1 passing yards per game they have been the 2nd best passing defence in the NFL, the Eagles on the other hand have struggled to stop opposing Quarterbacks from marching their offences down the field, they have allowed an average of 289.8 yards per game and are ranked last in the league.  The Eagles pass defence have excelled in picking off Quarterbacks though and their 19 interceptions is the 4th highest number in the NFC this season, the Saints have a turnover differential of 0 on the season as they’ve thrown 12 interceptions and make exactly the same number.

This game should be fascinating to watch and a lot could depend on the weather conditions in Philadelphia come kick off, there’s no snow forecast for Saturday but with a storm forecast for Friday and temperatures expected to drop to -5 Celsius on Saturday night throwing the ball could be very tricky for both QB’s so the team with the peerless running game should have the advantage.  It’s very difficult to bet against Sean Payton and his box of tricks that he has at his disposal but I think the Eagles and LeSean McCoy should give Chip Kelly his first playoff win.